When former DU Magazine writers Kathryn Mayer (BA ’07, MILS ’10) and Greg Glasgow spotted a fun fact at the Walt Disney Family Museum during a trip to San Francisco in 2018, their journalistic prowess took hold. Walt, they learned, wanted to build a Disney ski resort in California’s Mineral King valley in the 1960s, right as the environmental movement was gaining ground. What’s more, the dream of a family-friendly resort had University of Denver ties.
“We visited a number of archives, combed through thousands of old newspaper stories and oral histories, talked to dozens of sources and much more to really understand and piece together what happened,” says Mayer. The fruits of their obsessive digging paid off, with the recent publication of “Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).
The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, where University of Denver’s former ski coach and political dissident of Nazi Germany, Willy Schaeffler, becomes intertwined with Walt’s vision for a Disney-owned ski resort.
Chapter 2: Finding the Perfect Spot
A helicopter dipped down through the blue California sky, casting a shimmering shadow on the snowy mountainside as it approached. The chopper found a flat spot to land near the top of the tall slope, and Willy Schaeffler clambered out, ready to explore. The forty-five-year-old German downhiller strapped his skis on before pushing off with a yell, careening to the bottom of the hill over ungroomed slopes and through a maze of trees and shrubs. It was 1961, and Schaeffler was on the hunt for the best location for his new ski-resort venture with Walt Disney.
Everything he had heard about Mineral King was true, Schaeffler thought, as he glided to a stop at the bottom of the slope. The snow quality was excellent, the views breathtaking, and the valley floor perfectly suited for a welcoming collection of hotels, restaurants, and shops. It was the closest thing the German skier had seen in America to the famous European peaks that drew winter sports enthusiasts from all over the world.
Schaeffler lived for these kinds of adventures—the more extreme the better. He had climbed up and skied down mountains all over the world, daredeviling his way to the bottom, where he’d stand with his ski goggles pushed up on his forehead, his signature look, to give his expert opinion on the hill’s ski-area potential. For the past few months, Schaeffler had been exploring mountains all over Southern California—and even some in Colorado—for his project with Walt Disney. He had been especially excited about the visit to Mineral King, which had taken on an almost legendary status in the ski community as a great untapped location. Schaeffler also had heard about the valley’s remarkable features and giant bowls from Walt, whom he had met when the two worked together on the 1960 Winter Olympics in California’s Squaw Valley. Walt had taken a few summer vacations in the Mineral King area at the invitation of local landowner Ray Buckman, and he told Schaeffler—who was overseeing the skiing events at the Games—he thought it might be the perfect location for the ski area he wanted to build. When Walt sent Schaeffler and economist Harrison “Buzz” Price, Walt’s advisor on new developments, on a helicopter journey around the undeveloped peaks of Southern California, he made sure Mineral King was at the top of the list.
Though Walt and Schaeffler had met by chance at the 1960 Olympics, they soon became fast friends, forming a dynamic duo of spectacle and sport. Impressed by Schaeffler’s skiing prowess and his knowledge of how ski runs should be constructed, Walt took Schaeffler aside several times during the Winter Games to talk about his vision for a family-friendly ski resort unlike any that existed at the time. Schaeffler was equally impressed by Walt for his attention to detail, his creative vision, and his ability to get others to buy into his plans. He signed on as Walt’s partner, and the two became a formidable team sharing qualities of stubbornness, determination, and a no-nonsense approach. Schaeffler was strong-willed, yet highly passionate—maybe even more so than Walt. It was a personality born from a life of struggle.
Described by one writer as “dictatorial, outspoken, stubborn, wild, honest, sensitive, dynamic, egocentric, virile, unpunctual, reserved, generous, moody, dogmatic, fiercely intelligent, unpredictable, physically rugged, skeptical, cultured, disciplined, critical, and persevering,” Wilhelm Josef “Willy” Schaeffler had become an undeniable presence in the skiing world since arriving in the United States in 1948 as a self-described “political persecutee of the Nazi government.” Born in 1915 in the Bavarian town of Kaufbeuren, Schaeffler was skiing on barrel staves at age three and competitively by age eight. He won the Bavarian Junior Alpine Championships in 1932 and was named to the 1936 German Olympic team, but he broke both of his legs just before the Games—“Willy came whooshing off the end of a ski jump squarely into a loose toboggan,” as Sports Illustrated put it—and was unable to compete.
When the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s, Schaeffler’s family were among the Germans who were outspoken in their opposition to the party. When Schaeffler was drafted into Hitler’s army in the early years of World War II, he was immediately labeled a “political unsafe.” Placed in a battalion with other German political dissidents, Schaeffler was sent to the Russian front, where he was captured and tortured by the Soviets. He escaped by disguising himself in the uniform of a dead Russian guard, then returned to the front lines, where he was wounded again in a firefight. He survived, but the ordeal left Schaeffler with pieces of shrapnel in his heart, a shrunken lung, and a permanent distrust of authority.
After World War II ended in 1945, Schaeffler began teaching U.S. Army forces in Germany—including a young George Patton—how to ski and rock climb. It was at that time Schaeffler met American Army officer Betty Durnford, who would become his wife of fourteen years. With Betty’s assistance, Schaeffler immigrated to the United States in 1948, at the age of thirty-two. He had no money, but he did have four pairs of skis.
One of his first orders of business upon arriving in America was to reach out to Larry Jump, cofounder of Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin ski area, to inquire about working at the resort as a ski instructor. “Six weeks ago I arrived in the United States as a political persecutee of the Nazi government,” Schaeffler wrote. “I am writing to you at this time to tell you of my qualifications as a ski school leader and organizer of new ski territories.”
Jump did Schaeffler one better, inviting him to Colorado to help construct the growing resort’s ski hills. Given the title of trail supervisor, Schaeffler was in charge of cutting, sawing, and pulling logs off of trails as they were constructed.
Around the same time, Schaeffler was hired as ski coach at the University of Denver, where his demand for perfection and his unforgiving training regimen—which included forcing skiers to run up and down the stairs of the school’s football stadium with another skier on their shoulders—led his team to sweep the NCAA championships year after year. Thanks to his success with the DU ski team, Schaeffler became a fixture on the pages of Sports Illustrated. In 1957, he convinced the magazine to publish his series of illustrations introducing U.S. skiers to the Austrian “shortswing” skiing technique, “the revolutionary reverse-shoulder technique that has swept Europe,” according to the text that accompanied the illustrations of Schaeffler demonstrating the method.
Schaeffler’s reputation took another leap forward in the late 1950s, when he was recruited to oversee the skiing portion of the Squaw Valley Olympics. With his sharp Germanic features, heavy accent, intense blue eyes, and perpetual squint, Schaeffler was a presence both feared and revered during Olympic preparations in Squaw Valley, where he ran the ski events and created the alpine courses. He walked the mountain for four days before declaring Squaw Valley worthy of competition, and he even brought the University of Denver ski team to California to test the runs as he designed them.
Organizers of the Squaw Valley Olympics had a knack for finding leaders whose attention to detail and demand for perfection would keep the planning for the Games moving forward. The skiing events had Schaeffler at their helm, while the athletes’ village, opening and closing ceremonies, and other elements of showmanship at the Games were overseen by none other than Walt Disney, who was brought on to make sure a long-shot Winter Olympics would be a success.